The range of words requiring inverted commas is increasing by the day. On Tuesday we were informed that the President had “answered” the Open Letter from the International Press Institute. On the Internet, aside from the BBC Ukrainian Service, nobody was particularly interested in the relationship between letter and “answer”. This is regrettable since answers are badly needed while fob-off phrases about “not allowing a return to censorship” and “serious conclusions” are good only for those who can provide no proper response. The television news programmes coped with the lack of relationship in what has become their standard fashion: they ignored both, or simply regurgitated the President’s words with no commentary or analysis.
The President asserts that “The facts contained in the International Press Institute’s letter were examined in detail and serious conclusions were made”
In their letter, the International Press Institute (IPI) expressed concern over the “significant deterioration in the press freedom environment in Ukraine, since [Yanukovych] came to office in February 2010”. They are “alarmed at reports of an increase in the number of assaults against journalists and a failure to bring the perpetrators of the attacks to justice.”, and provide direct links to video clips of attacks by Ukrainian law enforcement officers on journalists.
They refer to the attack by “Berkut” Special Forces men on Novy Kanal journalist, Serhiy Kutryak when the latter was filming the opening of a highly controversial photo exhibition “Volyn Massacre” in April. On 12 July the Shevchenkivsky Court revoked the decision to initiate a criminal investigation into obstruction of the journalist’s professional activities, with this ruling being upheld on 9 August by the Kyiv Court of Appeal. On 15 July an internal inquiry found no infringements by the Berkut officers.
The serious conclusion would seem to be that Berkut officers can assault journalists with impunity.
Take also the violence from a Presidential guard from the State Security Department against a journalist from TV STB in June. Demands from the movement “Stop Censorship!” to name and dismiss the guard have been ignored. On 13 July the Military Prosecutor for the Central Region refused to initiate a criminal investigation against the anonymous guard, and at the beginning of August the Security Department reported that their internal investigation had found no wrong-doing in the behaviour of their security guards.
The serious conclusions are basically the same.
With regard to the attack on journalists from the Express newspaper in the Lviv region in April, the Verkhovna Rada Committee on Freedom of Speech decided that the police had not been involved. We can only hope that they have grounds for such serious conclusions which totally contradict the statements made by the journalists involved.
The fine-sounding words from the President about Channel 5 and TVi can also not withstand that unfortunate confrontation between words and reality. In response to the President’s assertion that he often meets with journalists from Channel 5, the staff of the channel “again turn to him asking for a meeting. After all, in the two months since we addressed our Open Letter to the President, we have not been able to inform him of the real nature of the threat hanging over the First Ukrainian Information Channel due to the possibility of our being deprived through court proceedings of our broadcasting frequencies”.
It’s delightful to hear words like “as a citizen and as Guarantor of the Constitution I have no right to influence the courts”. Yet firstly, nobody is asking him to do so. IPI expresses its hope that the court case on frequencies “will be open to the public and that Ukraine will make efforts to ensure that the allocation process is transparent, fair and not subject to political pressure”. The television channels involved, other media and human rights organizations, including Reporters without Borders, as well as representatives of the Council of Europe have repeatedly stressed the need for this.
The Guarantor of the Constitution is asked not to allow the culmination of a process unthinkable in any democratic country. In the given court case over frequencies, no words can conceal the manifest conflict of interests and “blurring of the lines between government office and private media ownership”. The owner of the Inter Media Group which is trying to take frequencies away from TVi and Channel 5, is at the same time the Head of the Security Service [SBU] and, since May, a member of the High Council of Justice.
The President should have removed this conflict of interests back in April when the SBU approached the National Television and Radio Broadcasting Council demanding documents about the competition for television frequencies from 27 January and also a letter from the SBU to the regulating body asking that the satellite platform “Poverkhnost Sport TV”, which specifically drew the regulators’ attention to the transmission of TVi (cf. khpg.org/index.php?id=1270822965)
Instead, with his decree of 31 May, Yanukovych made Khoroshkovsky a member of the High Council of Justice which according to the new laws hastily passed this summer has extended powers to appoint and dismiss judges.
On 12 August the High Administrative Court rejected the law suit brought by TVi asking the court to find the President’s decree appointing Khoroshkovsky to the High Council of Justice unlawful. It is a shame that the full ruling has not yet been published. It is, after all, difficult to imagine what the court found in the curriculum vitae of the media magnate and Head of the SBU that could meet the requirements of the Law on the High Council of Justice which include: “a higher legal education and experience of work in the field of law of no less than ten years”.
Following this ruling, even without going into the questionable actions of the SBU over recent times directed against freedom of speech, it would be exceedingly difficult to not share the concerns expressed by the International Press Institute.
Removal of the frequencies of two of the last independent television channels through a law suit brought by the media group effectively owned by the Head of the SBU will not only be a blow to independent media and public access to balanced information. It will cause immeasurable damage to Ukraine’s reputation, as well as that of the present regime, and no fine words will be of any use.
Judging from the President’s remarks, it is not only the SBU who follow criticism of the regime. One might feel pleased that they read hard-hitting texts if their catastrophic inability to learn lessons from this was not so worrying. The “answer” on the President’s site is staggering for many reasons, but primarily for the idiocy of attempts with words to whitewash the sordid reality which simply hits one in the eye.
What’s the point of all the empty declarations when only those television channels from which they’re trying to remove frequencies proved capable of covering information of public importance about the International Press Institute’s criticism? They can give references to non-interference in business activities a rest as well. The First National Television Channel [UTV-1] should be meeting the information needs of the tax payers and not misleading them through avoiding various issues. The problem, incidentally, is not always the lack of information, but its careful selection and editing. On 13 August UTV-1 reported a meeting between the President and the Head of the Supreme Court whose powers have just been very radically cut in the controversial Law on the Judicial System and Status of Judges. The report begins with the phrase: “Yanukovych: Ukraine needs reform of the entire system of justice” and basically contains in that mode right up to this gem of manipulative reporting:
“Viktor Yanukovych, President of Ukraine: People need to feel now that the judicial system has begun working much more effectively and has become much closer to people and to society.
Vasyl Onopenko, Head of the Supreme Court: We will present proposals to the President in order to improve it, after all there are no limits to improvement”.
Not one word about warranted doubts regarding the first step, most hurriedly taken, towards “judicial reform”, with criticism heard by no means only from the Head of the Supreme Court. This is, of course, entirely in line with the new policy of the First National Television Channel, as voiced recently by its Vice-President Valid Arfush. He says that his television channel “must definitely be pro-regime… the First National Channel should always cover the work of those in power, pass only positive information to the viewers”.
This policy is clearly not in the interests of taxpayers, nor does it meet the requirements of a democratic society. It also forces us to the most serious conclusion – that all words about creating public broadcasting and commitment to freedom of speech are empty and misleading.
There remains only one question, in no sense rhetorical: why should media outlets with respect for their audience even report such “answers”?